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Fact check: Is Peter Dutton wrong?

Fact check: Is Peter Dutton wrong?

Friday 20 May, 2016
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has been under fire for his recent comments about refugees. But is he wrong?
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Last night, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton criticised The Greens’ proposal to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 50,000 places per year, stating:

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English (…) Now, these people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. And for many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it. So there would be a huge cost and there’s no sense in sugarcoating that. That’s the scenario.”

His comments have been the subject of intense criticism by political opponents and community groups, who claim they are both inaccurate and offensive.

Considering the level of public interest, I would like to analyse each of Dutton’s claims, referring to research from the Department of Immigration’s very own reports where possible.

Claim #1: Many refugees who arrive are not numerate or literate

Let’s take a look at the literacy rates of refugees from a report the Department of Immigration commissioned (p18):

Can write in English

  • Not at all: 13.9 percent
  • Not well: 41.4 percent

Can read in English

  • Not at all: 13 percent
  • Not well: 35.8 percent

Can speak English

  • Not at all: 10.4 percent
  • Not well: 41.3 percent

Verdict: Dutton is correct that many refugees have low rates of English literacy. No data could be found to confirm his claims on numeracy.

Claim #2: Refugees take Australian jobs

This claim is a difficult one to substantiate due to a lack of evidence (and the semi-contradictory claim that refugees have high levels of unemployment).

When a recent Department of Immigration report considered the question of refugees’ contribution to the Australian economy, it concluded (p1):

“The research found the overwhelming picture, when one takes the longer term perspective of changes over the working lifetime of Humanitarian Program entrants and their children, is one of considerable achievement and contribution.

The Humanitarian Program yields a demographic dividend because of a low rate of settler loss, relatively high fertility rate and a high proportion of children who are likely to work the majority of their lives in Australia. It finds evidence of increasing settlement in nonmetropolitan areas which creates social and economic benefits for local communities.

Humanitarian entrants help meet labour shortages, including in low skill and low paid occupations. They display strong entrepreneurial qualities compared with other migrant groups, with a higher than average proportion engaging in small and medium business enterprises.”

Additionally, the Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that refugees are more likely to be self-employed or work for family businesses than the average Australian (p23). In 2009-2010, more than 10 percent of refugee incomes came from self-owned business.

Verdict: More information is required to understand what impact increasing our refugee intake would have on the short-term availability of employment opportunities.

The mere fact that refugees will seek employment does not mean they are necessarily taking jobs that would otherwise go to Australian workers. In fact, an Immigration Department report notes that refugees are useful in filling labour shortages for low skilled and paid work, while statistics from the ABS demonstrate refugees have a high propensity to start new business ventures.

Claim #3: Refugees languish in unemployment queues

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the unemployment rate for humanitarian arrivals at 33 percent – but this isn’t the whole story.

An Immigration Department report states the unemployment rate for second-generation humanitarian arrivals (that is, the children of refugees) is a mere six percent, a fraction higher than the Australian average (p110).

What’s more, second-generation refugees have a higher level of workplace participation than the average Australian.

A similar picture emerges when we look at education.

The same Immigration Department report shows that while first-generation refugees have below-average levels of education (p136), the following generation achieve a higher level of education than the average Australian (p140).

Verdict: Unemployment rates for first-generation refugees are significantly higher than the broader population, but by the following generation this gap is negligible. Further, the workforce participation rate of the second generation exceeds the Australian average.

Dutton has chosen to emphasise the short-term impact of refugee intake while ignoring the longer-term in order to provide a selective picture of their contribution to the Australian economy.

Claim #4: Refugees are a huge cost to Australia

Resettling refugees costs money. When they arrive, many require strong language and vocational training to help them transition into Australian society. Further, first generation refugees are more likely to be unemployed and have a higher reliance on government benefits.

When the Abbott Government announced they would take an additional 12,000 refugees in the wake of the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq, budget figures anticipated an additional cost of $107.4 million to $188.8 million per year.

This roughly works out to $9,000 to $16,000 per refugee per year.

But purely analysing cost fails to consider the question of whether refugees are ultimately a net loss or gain to the Australian economy.

When a 2013 research paper analysed the existing data on the economic contribution of refugees in Australia they noted there is “no evidence suggesting that refugees impose a net cost to Australia in the long term”:

The evidence suggests that refugees do make significant economic contributions to Australia, although substantial barriers may be constraining and delaying contributions. Additionally, much more research is needed to understand the scale of such contributions and the processes through which they actually take place.

Verdict: Once more, Dutton is only correct in the short-term. Rather than being a drain, the long-term evidence points to refugees providing a net gain to the Australian economy.


Dutton could have put forward an argument which recognised that, while refugees make valuable contributions to the economy in the long-term, in the short-term, Australia cannot shoulder the costs associated with an increase refugee intake.

Instead, he chose to use language that directly appealed to negative stereotypes in order to stoke community fears. For this, he is right to be criticised.

There is considerable evidence for the positive contributions of refugees to Australia – from their entrepreneurial spirit, higher levels of workplace participation, and above-average levels of education (in the case of the second generation).

Perhaps Dutton should familiarise himself with the research that his own department has produced on the subject.


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